By Bonnie Gauthier, HHC President and CEO
It is a well-known fact that America is becoming increasingly dominated by older Americans. What is less clear is what the quality of life will be for these older people—that is, how successfully they, and we, will age.
Quality of life can vary greatly from individual to individual, depending on how prepared and willing someone is to face his or her own aging, and to work actively to add quality to this increasingly long stage of life. Those of us who specialize in caring for the elderly can help and offer the following valuable insights into how we can help ourselves to live successfully–at any age.
10 KEYS TO SUCCESSFUL AGING:
1. Acknowledge aging as a new stage of growth.
In every stage of life we have work to do—certain things to accomplish. As we age, we finish our earlier “jobs”—like deciding what kind of useful work we want to do, or raising our children—and we move on to other things. Instead of viewing our aging as the “winding down” of our lives, we need to view it as the next step. Human development theories teach us that those who age most successfully—that is, find the most satisfaction and fulfillment in their lives—are people who do just that.
The number of persons aged 65 years old and older is expected to increase from approximately 35 million in 2000 to an estimated 71 million in 2030, and the number of persons aged 80 years old and older is expected to increase from 9.3 million in 2000 to 19.5 million in 2030. (US Census Bureau)
2. Revisit former activities that we put on hold during periods of our lives when we didn’t have time for them.
Maybe you really like to write, or sculpt, or go fishing, but the demands of a young family or work made it impossible to pursue those things. Go back and enjoy them again because you enjoyed them before.
3. Pursue lifelong wishes.
How often do we say, “I’ve always wanted to do that…” It’s time to do it—whatever “that” is. Take that cruise down the Nile, go up in a hot air balloon, swim with dolphins, plant a garden. Just start doing. When we “cross things off our list” we not only feel better, but we find new things to add to our list. The more experiences we have, the more we take from life, and the more we’re motivated to take even more.
4. Exercise your mind.
Just as we need to keep our muscles exercised and strong, we need to do the same thing for our brains. Research demonstrates that people who keep their minds active are more likely to remain cognitively intact longer and better than people who don’t. Mental “exercise” isn’t passive—like reading a book. It’s actively pursuing new learning that requires us to manipulate our brain in some way. It’s work—and it’s as fundamental as getting our four food groups and 30 minutes of exercise every day.
5. Form new or renew old social patterns and connections.
Social patterns change. We retire and don’t interact with people from work. Our longtime raquetball partner moves to Florida. We must replace old social patterns and connections with new ones that are meaningful. Bingo might be a meaningful social activity to one person, and not at all meaningful to someone else. Don’t just look for activities to fill time. Pursue activities that connect you to other human beings in ways that resonate with you.
6. Help the next generation.
Share the benefit of your life of learning. Give something back. Spending time with grandchildren is one way to do this. So is volunteering as a tutor, in a museum, or as a Big Brother or Sister. There are countless ways to remain connected that will benefit all the generations who are “behind us.” When we give back this way, we derive great personal value and satisfaction for ourselves.
7. Don’t leave unfinished business or regrets.
Try to move family or friendship relationships that haven’t gone the way you wanted to a better place. They may never be what they once were, but we must try to move them away from feelings of bitterness and regret. The simple fact is that one person in the relationship is going to outlive the other. Unless we mend frayed relationships, the person left behind will always live with the painful knowledge that there is no possibility of fixing what was wrong.
22 percent of Americans age 65 and older reported having access to the Internet. That translates to about 8 million Americans age 65 and older who use the Internet. (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2004)
8. Understand the changes in our bodies.
A geriatrician is a specialist in the needs of older adults and can help us understand what’s happening to our bodies as we age. We often dismiss little aches and pains as being a natural part of aging, but a geriatrician can diagnose accurately and help us stay healthier, longer. A 90-year old with a painful knee shouldn’t just attribute it to “getting old,” particularly if his other 90-year old knee doesn’t hurt!
9. Prepare financially.
Understand that we are going to need money in different ways for different reasons than we did when we were younger. This doesn’t only mean money for prescriptions or doctor visits. It refers to shoveling the driveway, cleaning the gutters in the fall, lugging home groceries, things we always did for ourselves. Now, we don’t want to get up on that ladder, or can’t.
10. Think about end of life decisions, even though it’s hard.
From an early age we aspire to take charge of our lives. Making end of life decisions in advance is another way of staying in charge. Equally important is communicating the decisions we make specifically, early, and in writing, to other people. Talk about your wishes with family, friends, or others you’re going to entrust with carrying them out.
IF YOU WAKE UP EVERY MORNING THINKING THAT TODAY IS GOING TO BE THE BEST DAY OF YOUR LIFE, IT JUST MIGHT TURN OUT TO BE!
Perception can be more powerful than reality. Even if we have complex chronic medical conditions, live with pain, and take multiple prescriptions, we can still feel good about ourselves, good about our lives, and interested in what’s coming next. There is always more to experience, more to learn, more to know about. Ultimately, the best way to age.